It was back in 1944 that jazz impresario Norman Granz produced the first of what was to become a venerable series of concerts instrumental in moving jazz from the bar room to the concert hall. He called it Jazz at the Philharmonic. Gathering stellar casts of top musical talent, Granz showcased jazz as serious art. It was a series that ran on and off in a variety of forms through 1983.
Now, in something of a resurrection, comes a one-time revival of the iconic series in a concert produced by Larry Rosen for the National YoungArts Foundation aired on PBS and released as a CD/DVD combo last month. Featuring an all-star lineup of both jazz and classical musicians in a program that merges musical genres, Jazz & The Philharmonic points to the intersection between serious jazz and serious classical music. So you get genre-bending performances like trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s collaboration with pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe on Bach’s “Solfeggietto,” or Blanchard and opera star Eric Owens working on the “Fugue in C Minor.” In effect, the concert erases the lines that too often needlessly label musical expression. In a sense, making the common sense assertion that good music is always, at heart, good music.
While the DVD contains the complete program on 13 tracks, the CD has only nine selections. The omissions are “Soloings 2,” a solo piece of vocalise from Bobby McFerrin accompanying a solo dance from choreographer Desmond Richardson; “Incandescent, Iridescent, Effervescent,” a piano duet from Roe and Shelly Berg; “Armando’s Rhumba” with McFerrin and Chick Corea, and the finale in which the whole cast joins with the University of Miami Frost School of Music’s Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra on the 2001: A Space Odyssey passage from Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.
They begin with Bobby McFerrin, Chick Corea, and Dave Grusin, quite obviously enjoying themselves, doing the classic “Autumn Leaves,” followed by Blanchard and a dynamic Owens doing the Bach Fugue for a nice contrast. Corea comes back to join Blanchard and Owens for “Spanish Suite,” which combines the pianist’s “Spain” and famous theme from Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” Grusin is joined by violinist Mark O’Conner for “Simple Gifts” and “Mountain Dance.” Blanchard does a gorgeous job on Mancini’s “Charade,” and Roe and Berg do a lush version of “The Man I Love.”
It is the kind of exciting concert, filled with excellent performances, that begs for more. It is the kind of concert you will be happy to watch again and again.